A Dental Student’s Last Day in Medical School: What Makes Harvard Different

By Golmah Zarinkhou

I spent the first two years of dental school struggling to solve a puzzle, and on March 25th of this year, I glanced around the lecture hall seconds before my final medical school exam and wondered if I succeeded. Did I manage to feel real here?

No cruelty exists the likes of which runs self-directed through a health professional student’s mind. Kings and queens of guilt, we preside over each moment grasping an efficiency gauge as if it were a scepter. But even worse, a dental student in medical school can quite easily feel like a fake, even more easily like a failure. As it turned out, we were fake failures—a breed of human that runs rampant in the minds of the overworked and underfed.

My last day in Harvard Medical School bombarded me with reminders of the most unique turn my life ever took.

HSDM and HMS students celebrating the last day of medical school classes. Photo by Tamara Rodriguez

Harvard offers an incomparable dental school experience for countless reasons, some rare among schools and others unmatched. Thirty-five students, the smallest class in the United States, are lightly sprinkled into a two-year batter of 135 medical students and split into four batches called societies: Castle, Cannon, Peabody, and Holmes. They are named after trailblazers in medicine and continue a 230-year-old tradition of collaborative learning at Harvard. The school further divides societies for small group sessions, so that together, society members handle sectioned organs, undergo medical simulations, and discuss patient cases in weekly tutorials.

During these smaller sessions and class lectures, we meet the debatably eidetic, the clinically skilled, and the feverishly ambitious. We also discover the unsure, the struggling, and the homesick, but most commonly, we meet the passionate.

Admittedly, we initially evaluate each other more than the patients. But time and a pass/fall curriculum teach us to band together, and we realize the inconsistency between outward perception and inner turmoil. Our small groups help rediscover the confidence of character that earned our admission in the first place.

Our clinical skill set expands as we deviate from the traditional dental school curriculum even further. We learn whole body, not merely craniofacial, anatomy. Only does dissecting the foot remain optional, and by determining it the farthest appendage from the mouth, our anatomy group may decline to venture so far south. Meanwhile, weekly forays to our assigned Harvard-affiliated hospital, where we perform patient interviews and physical exams, introduce a tongue-defying vocabulary that ranges from the heartbreakingly simple “tachycardia” to the unnervingly convoluted “dysdiadochokinesia.”

Throughout such a furious maelstrom of information, dental students juggle extra coursework while also preparing for our national board exam in the second year. But we learn to stand still in the storm if only to realize we are still standing. It is the sort of feeling that somehow both humbles and elevates the spirit.

If you accept a spot here, remember there is a period of ghostlike wandering for nearly everyone; you may even haunt the dorms in Vanderbilt Hall with bruised ego and flickering confidence. The setting will seem hazy and the situation surreal. Yet for me, it was not my surroundings, only my sense of self that had to solidify in an unexpected way: dissected and rearranged, every aspect of my character ultimately felt familiar but reinforced.